Madeleine Albright, a Czech-born refugee who went on to serve as the first female secretary of state in the U.S., died of cancer on Wednesday at the age of 84.
A committed internationalist and shaper of U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era, Ms. Albright was serving as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations when President Clinton tapped her as his second-term secretary of state in 1997, a post she held for four years. She was for decades a prominent figure in Democratic Party foreign policy circles, an author and scholar of international relations, a world-class collector of her trademark decorative dress pins, and a linguist reportedly fluent in Czech, Russian, French, German, Polish and Serbo-Croatian.
She had admirers on both sides of the aisle. Many Republicans respected her outspokenness against communist Cuba, her support for NATO expansion and her dedication to upholding democracy around the world.
“She was surrounded by family and friends,” her family said in a statement. “We have lost a loving mother, grandmother, sister, aunt and friend.”
Ms. Albright played a crucial role in persuading Mr. Clinton to go to war against Yugoslavian strongman Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, two years after he tapped her as the first woman to serve as America’s top diplomat.
Despite being secretary of state, Ms. Albright was not in the line of succession for the presidency because she was born in Prague. She spent part of her childhood on the Soviet side of the Cold War divide and later credited the experience for helping to shape her worldview.
It may also have fueled her ambition. Ms. Albright became the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history when Mr. Clinton appointed her to lead the State Department. President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2012 in recognition of her long career in public service.
Born Marie Jana Korbelova in 1937, Ms. Albright and her family fled Czechoslovakia in 1939 as the Nazis took over their country, and she spent the war years in London. The Korbel family returned to Czechoslovakia after the war and came to the U.S. as refugees in 1948, her family said.
Praising her as a “force” who “defied convention and broke barriers again and again,” President Biden ordered the U.S. flag at the White House and all government buildings to fly at half-staff in her honor.
“A scholar, teacher, bestselling author and later accomplished business woman, she always believed America was the indispensable nation, and inspired the next generation of public servants to follow her lead, including countless women leaders around the world,” Mr. Biden said in a statement. “Madeleine was always a force for goodness, grace, and decency — and for freedom.”
Similar reactions were heard across Washington.
“She led an incredible, inspiring life and was one of the strongest voices on the world stage. I had the pleasure of traveling with her and witnessed firsthand the respect people throughout the world had for Secretary Albright,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said in a post on Twitter.
Mr. Obama praised her as a “champion for democratic values,” and Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said, “You didn’t have to share every one of Secretary Albright’s policy views to appreciate her dedicated leadership on behalf of our nation.”
Mr. Obama said one of his favorite stories about Ms. Albright involved a naturalization ceremony where “an Ethiopian man came up to Madeleine and said, ‘Only in America could a refugee from Africa meet the secretary of state.’ She replied, ‘Only in America could a refugee from Central Europe become secretary of state.’”
With her background as a refugee from communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, Ms. Albright was not a dove. She played a leading role in pressing for the Clinton administration to get militarily involved in the conflict in Kosovo. She also took a hard line on Cuba. She famously said at the United Nations that the Cuban shoot-down of a civilian plane was not “cojones” but “cowardice.”
As ambassador to the United Nations from 1993 to 1997, she regularly advocated for a tough U.S. foreign policy, most notably in response to Milosevic’s violent ethnic cleansing campaigns in the Balkans.
She once exclaimed to Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” Mr. Powell, who died last year, recalled in a memoir that Ms. Albright’s comments almost gave him an “aneurysm.”
She later helped win Senate ratification of NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe and a treaty imposing international restrictions on chemical weapons.
Developing a voice
Ms. Albright once said her advice to women was “to act in a more confident manner” and “to ask questions when they occur and don’t wait to ask.”
“It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent,” she told HuffPost Living in 2010.
Ms. Albright remained outspoken through the years. After leaving office, she criticized President George W. Bush for using “the shock of force” rather than alliances to foster diplomacy and said Mr. Bush drove away moderate Arab leaders and created a dangerous rift with European allies.
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked her in January 2007 whether she approved of Mr. Bush’s proposed “surge” in U.S. troops to rescue the troubled Iraq mission, she responded: “I think we need a surge in diplomacy. We are viewed in the Middle East as a colonial power and our motives are suspect.”
She was equally critical of President Trump. She told MSNBC in April 2020 that she was “very, very troubled by his unpredictability and his swinging back and forth on what he says.”
Still, she could work with Republicans who shared her realpolitik view of international relations and an activist approach to defending democracy around the world. The McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University responded to Ms. Albright’s passing by praising her as a “giant of American diplomacy.”
The institute, named after the late Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, noted that after leaving government, Ms. Albright served as chairman of the National Democratic Institute, where “she worked tirelessly with International Republican Institute Chairman Senator John McCain to support democracy wherever it was needed.”
“Today, America lost a patriot and an irreplaceable leader,” the institute said. “Throughout her career, Secretary Albright’s life story gave hope to millions as she became a living embodiment of the American Dream.”
Ms. Albright described herself in 1998 as “an eternal optimist.” At the time, she was engaged in an effort to promote peace in the Middle East. But getting Israel to pull back on the West Bank and the Palestinians to rout terrorists would prove difficult.
She made limited progress in trying to expand the 1993 Oslo Accords, which established the principle of self-rule for the Palestinians on the West Bank and in Gaza, but later played a leading role in formulating the 1998 Wye Accords that turned over control of about 40% of the West Bank to the Palestinians.
She also spearheaded an ill-fated effort to negotiate a 2000 peace deal between Israel and Syria under Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.
Ms. Albright was the daughter of a Czechoslovak diplomat, Joseph Korbel. Much of the family was Jewish, but her parents converted to Roman Catholicism when she was 5. Three of her Jewish grandparents died in concentration camps, a family history she did not fully learn about until she was confirmed as secretary of state.
The family returned to Czechoslovakia after World War II but soon fled again, this time to the United States, after the communists consolidated power and her homeland came into the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.
The Korbels settled in Colorado, where her father obtained a job at the University of Denver. One of Josef Korbel’s best students, a young woman named Condoleezza Rice, would follow his daughter as secretary of state under Mr. Bush, the first Black woman to hold that office.
Ms. Albright graduated from Wellesley College in 1959. She worked as a journalist and later studied international relations at Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in 1968 and a Ph.D. in 1976. She worked for the National Security Council during the Carter administration and advised Democrats on foreign policy before Mr. Clinton’s election. He nominated her for the U.N. post in 1993.
After her service in the Clinton administration, she headed a global strategy firm, Albright Stonebridge, and was chair of an investment advisory company focused on emerging markets.
She also wrote several books. Ms. Albright married journalist Joseph Albright, a descendant of Chicago’s Medill-Patterson newspaper dynasty, in 1959. They had three daughters and divorced in 1983.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
• Guy Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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